Ramon Borges-Mendez holds many roles within the Clark University and greater Worcester community. He is an associate professor of community development and planning within the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment. Additionally, he helps coordinate the University’s Graduate Program in Community Development and Planning.
One thing though that many people may not know is Borges-Mendez’s tie to the Worcester Public Schools.
“For better or for worse, I had a whole set of knowledge that was applicable,” Borges-Mendez said about his work. “In food, there’s a whole bunch of processing but in a way, you need to put hands on it, somehow.”
That’s what Borges-Mendez did. He took the lead of a project within the public schools to change the business model of how they serve food, transforming the way nutrition for students is prepared. By improving the quality of the food, Borges-Mendez was addressing a much bigger issue not only within Worcester, but within the country as a whole: food insecurity.
On May 6, Borges-Mendez and three other professors from Clark University came together on Zoom to share their work experience around the topic of food insecurity in a professor panel event hosted by Clark’s Challah for Hunger chapter.
Within Worcester County, roughly ten percent of people are classified as food insecure, or being in a state without adequate quality and quantity of food. Twenty percent of children in the county regularly go hungry.
“Food insecurity is not just because we have too little food but also because we have too much, and we have too much of the wrong stuff,” said Borges-Mendez, who teaches a Food Systems: Place, Policy, and Change class. “That is a model that is starting to grow and expand into other regions of the world. It is something that is very concerning.”
Economics Professor Jacqueline Geoghegan started a food economics course to research the food deserts within Worcester. For several years, students created a full inventory of the food resources in Worcester. They went in teams to places to see what was available, how much food cost, and more.
“There’s a whole research area on food deserts,” Geoghegan said. “What’s interesting is that on one hand you may think that neighborhoods are where more food deserts are likely. In Worcester, that’s not the case.”
Geoghegan found that while there was not the same variety and quality in the poor areas of Worcester, there still were bodegas providing food to the community. This has implications, then, for urban industrial cities in the sense of mixed land use, which could be used throughout the United States.
Nationally, 10.5 percent of households were food insecure at some point during 2019. Globally, that number is even worse: around 746 million people suffered from severe food insecurity during that year, and another 16 percent of the global population experienced moderate food insecurity. This totals around two billion people in just one year who suffered from food insecurity.
Rinku Roy Chowdhury, Associate Professor of Geography, found that food access and actions taken to secure food are disproportionate and widespread in results. Roy Chowdhury’s research is mostly based in Mexico.
“We still don’t see every small farmer reacting in the same way,” Roy Chowdhury said. “There’s a tremendous amount of variability in individual decision making and individual agency.”
People juggle this diversity of options along with wages of labor, policies, economic support and more.
Another key issue, however, is climate change. Food access and availability are directly impacted by the ever changing weather and other climate-related issues.
Morgan Ruelle, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, has studied the effects of climate change within the food system on multiple levels.
“I am very interested in how diversity in food systems allow us to be adoptable when it comes to climate change,” said Ruelle, who is currently teaching a Food Security and Climate Change course.
Within his research in Ethiopia on beans and their varieties as well as adaptations to climate change, Ruelle found how diversification can help mitigate climate change effects. Species diversity, he said, enables food sovereignty, or a group of people’s right to their own healthy and culturally-appropriate food.
“There’s some pressure on those said food systems to simplify,” Ruelle said. “We want them to really diversify when it comes to climate.”
Roy Chowdhury added that those who are vulnerable to food insecurity have, what she called, a “double exposure.” Someone who is susceptible to economic globalization is also more prone to effects caused by climate change. This creates an even larger issue when it comes to food insecurity.
“One of the solutions that is promoted in terms of climate resilience is to plant trees,” Roy Chowdhury said. “That’s a interesting proposition but if we look empirically it’s quite unclear how that should be organized.”
Roy Chowdhury said that dynamic landscapes, which many scientists and researchers promote, offer a dynamic landscape sharing system of sorts that would create both agricultural and conservational land.
The issue though is partially aligned with the utilization of food. Locally, Borges-Mendez recognized that students in Worcester Public Schools were not enjoying the meals served, and the people making the food did not know what to do.
“The most important thing was to maximize the resources we had…There’s a lot of things that we can do to change institutional settings,” Borges-Mendez said. “The food is supposed to be eaten, not thrown away.”
To qualify for every student to receive federal lunch support, the US Department of Agriculture requires that over 50 percent of the students are under the poverty line. Worcester falls into that category, but the issue was with the utilization of the food. The system was uneven, Borges-Mendez said, with only 60 percent or so of the free meals actually being consumed.
“We had to bring the whole level up,” Borges-Mendez said. “The utilization gap was driven by simple misuse, deskilling, prejudice, and passive management.”
By retraining the staff, Borges-Mendez was able to help transform the way food is prepared. School culinary staff were taught to preserve the quality of the food, creating meals that students both enjoyed but also had the nutritional value needed.
Now, some of the Worcester Public Schools have upwards of 95 percent of food consumption.
“The issue of food is connected to work,” Borges-Mendez said. We have our entire labor force that picks up the food that we eat, an army of mothers who cook, an army of institutional workers that cook for all sorts of facilities, and so on.”
“Food systems are very complex,” Ruelle said. “We have an important role to play when it comes to knowledge facilitation.”